Thursday, September 24, 2009

Transformative Metaphor in Updike's Early Stories

As I continue to read The Early Stories, I am taken by Updike's use of metaphor. Two, in particular, have been so startling and apt that I would call them "transformative," in that they transport the reader out of the story for a moment, only to drop her back in with a changed view of the world of the story. When combined with Updike's exquisite descriptions, these metaphors make for a sublime reading experience.

Here is the first, from "Still Life":

He felt she quite misjudged his seriousness and would have been astonished to learn how deeply and solidly she had been placed in his heart, affording a fulcrum by which he lifted the great dead mass of his spare time, which now seemed almost lighter than air... (205)

It's so shocking that it completely takes the reader out of the narrative, but so apt that one is able to reenter without much trouble.

And then from "Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow?":

How tender of Clayton still to drink beer! By a trick of vision the liquid stood unbounded by glass. The sight of that suspended amber cylinder, like his magic first glimpse of Clayton's face, conjured in Fred an illusion of fondness... [they exchange a few words, then:]

Fred felt not so much frustrated as deflected, as if the glass that wasn't around the beer was around Clayton. (230)

One is aware of a keen intellect at work-- keen eyes to make the observation in the first place; keen mind to make the connection. And the reader's thoughts about the relationships between people--in this case, strangers barely turned acquaintances-- is forever changed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Transgressive Desire and Action in Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

These past few weeks I’ve been obsessing over one of Frost’s most simplistic poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I can remember memorizing and reciting the poem in second grade and I decided to memorize it again. Most of it came back to me fairly quickly, and I’ve been reciting it for my two boys after their bedtime stories. Through the processes of (re)memorization, I’ve also been revising my interpretation.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Like much of Frost’s work, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is highly accessible on a certain level, even to children. In fact, Frost published a collection of poetry intended for children titled You Come Too: Favorite Poems for Young Readers.

My more recent analysis, however, would more than likely not be included in an elementary school teacher’s lesson plan. I believe the major mode of “Stopping by Woods” is not pastoral but transgressive, a mode which early critics failed to consider.

John T. Ogilvie, for example, focuses on the “dichotomy” of two environments in the poem: 1) the speaker’s intense fascination with the dark manifestation of the natural world and 2) his social “obligations,” the “promises to keep” (l. 14). Ogilvie further asserts that these two environments are given equal consideration: “The artfulness of ‘Stopping by Woods,’ consists in the way the two worlds are established and balanced.

Perhaps a definition of my terms is in order. By ‘transgressive,’ I’m referring to the mood of the poem which asserts a general breach of social order or convention. Such a mood cannot operate within Ogilvie’s balanced dichotomy because the transgressive mood threatens to cancel out the second part of such a balanced equation, the speaker’s obligations to society.

One of my constant slips in the process of memorization occurred in the third line of the poem, which I mistakenly recited as “He will not mind me stopping here” instead of “He will not see me stopping here.” Such a slip is indicative of my own ordering of the poem’s narrative. It makes sense that the speaker might consider the land owner’s possible objections, but this is not the case. Instead, the speaker only considers whether or not he will be noticed or ‘caught.’ Such a distinction is small, but it sets the transgression of the poem in motion with the simple act of trespassing. The transgressive mood is further defined in the final stanza of the poem, as the speaker celebrates not only the act of trespassing, but its achievement, the place: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” (l. 13).

More recently, critics have identified the transgression of the poem as emblematic of the speaker’s desire to permanently sever all social ties. “The theme of ‘Stopping by Woods,’

Jeffrey Meyers asserts, “is the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year.”

Such a dark interpretation may be justifiable, but its specificity is restrictive. Perhaps it is more useful to identify the speaker, as so many of Frost’s speakers, at the very intersection of indecision, malaise and social obligation. He yearns for and even idealizes transgression because he believes it may allow an escape from such uncertainty.

Works Cited

Ogilvie, John T. "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost’s Poetry." South Atlantic Quarterly. Winter 1959.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

American Hybrid

So I started reading American Hybrid, which is a Norton anthology of contemporary poems that combine elements of formal and experimental poetry edited by David St. John and Cole Swensen and, and I have to say, it put me in a foul mood. I mean, I'm all for playing with language, but I get irritated when the experiment is not at all accessible. I don't need a narrative arc, but I do appreciate the suggestion of meaning, or a hint of sense. Some reason to read other than to exercise my decoding skills.

There were a few exceptions. Mark McMorris's work struck me a particularly readable and rhythmic:

Everything falls, to pieces, to the victor, to someone's lot
falls like a girl falls or a blossom, falls head over heels
like a city or water and like darkness falls, a dynast
a government can fall, or an apple, a cadence, the side of a hill... (p. 272)

This continues for 16 more lines, the accumulation of colloquialisms and new thoughts about what it means to fall create a layering that spins the reader's sense of the usual in a provocative way. McMorris works in sound and poetry performance, and when I read this piece, I could almost hear the lines speaking themselves off the page. I really loved it.

On the back of the book, Matthew Zapruder, editor of Wave Books, says, "Next time anyone asks you if American poetry is still relevant, necessary, or alive, hand them this book and walk away." I just think that's silly. First of all, it's closing down a conversation where one could otherwise blossom. I like the hand them this book part, but the walking away is so arrogant. It's like quoting a passage at the end of a paragraph in a literary essay and expecting readers to just "get it."

This anthology is difficult, and perhaps it is not a bad thing to be knocked off my rocker a little, so I'll not give up yet. I'm curious to know what others who may have read this are thinking. I've handed you this book. Now I'm standing here waiting for an answer.